A recent study from the University of British Columbia (UBC) suggests that men and women tend to associate “science” with “men,” an implicit bias that could be making it harder for female scientists to get promoted.

Researchers analyzed 40 scientific evaluation committees and how they selected scientists for promotion.

Committees that believe “science isn’t sexist” tended to promote fewer women. Meanwhile, committees that acknowledged the existence of gender bias exists promoted more women.

“Our evidence suggests that when people recognize women might face barriers, they are more able to put aside their own biases,” Toni Schmader, a UBC psychology professor and Canada Research Chair in social psychology, said in a statement.

“We don’t see any favourability for or against male or female candidates among those committees who believe they need to be vigilant to the possibility that biases could be creeping into their decision-making.”

While past research in this area has relied on made-up scenarios, the decisions made during this study had a real-life impact on people’s careers.

To identify any implicit bias, an “implicit association test” was used. The test flashed words on a computer screen and measured how quickly participants assigned those words to a category.

Both male and females on the hiring committees tended to show a greater science = male association.

“There’s research suggesting that you can document a ‘think science, think male’ implicit association showing up with kids as early as elementary school,” Schmader said.

“We learn associations from what we see in our environment. If we don’t see a lot of women who are role models in science, then we learn to associate science more with men than women.”

The study’s authors say the findings demonstrate “the importance of educating hiring committees about gender bias and how to guard against it.”

The study was published last month in Nature Human Behavior.